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Retailers must rethink and retest packaging for ecommerce

Today's most popular purchased goods are bypassing brick-and-mortar locations and aren't being packaged in mass quantities of the same item. Instead, they are being shipped solo directly to consumers' doorsteps. Such a reversal in the way things are bought and delivered to buyers means that many of the shipping standards that once ably kept items safe are now outdated and often inadequate.

As the International Safe Transit Association explained in its "Guidelines for selecting and using ISTA test procedures & projects," it's a good idea to re-evaluate a packaging strategy when distribution channels change. One timely example of distribution channels changing is when a retailer dives into the ecommerce space.


Unique challenges of ecommerce shipping

There are a number of challenges that ecommerce brings to the retailer, Bemis Company explains in its ebook "Packaging for a new era of e-commerce."

For example, manufacturers once were able to package large quantities of a single item into a package, where each unit fit perfectly next to its neighbor. Now, just one or two units might be shipped at a time. The mass quantity, secured safely onto a pallet, was much more protected than a single item on its own.

"There's no telling what all will be packed into one box."

Another barrier retailers are discovering is the unpredictable nature of what other products will accompany an item ordered online. A consumer stocking up on kitchen supplies could easily order a set of glass mixing bowls, a cast iron skillet and a jug of dish soap all at once. What's convenient shopping for the buyer is a packaging nightmare for the retailer. Cast iron skillets are heavy and strong, while the glass mixing bowls can be easily shattered, and the dish soap bottle could be crushed. Additionally, once the shipment leaves the warehouse, there are countless obstacles the items within could experience. The box in the example above could be carried on its side, placed upside down, or dropped. With every added touchpoint, these possibilities increase, potentially to the detriment of the order and the retailer's reputation – that dish soap turned on its side increases the probability of a mess for the consumer when he or she opens the box. When there's no telling what all will be packed into one box or shipment, it's important that retailers are prepared for all scenarios.


Obstacles along the road

The obstacle that ecommerce has created don't stop at unpredictable shipment combinations and more touchpoints. The very path that items now travel is dramatically different.

The American Institute for Packaging and the Environment explained in its white paper "Optimizing Packaging for an E-commerce World" that a package being handed off from one transportation provider to another means that the shipment will encounter more vibration and movements than a shipment headed directly to the loading dock doors of a brick-and-mortar store.

With ecommerce changing the way we shop, retailers must adapt their packaging strategies. Consumers can easily order just about anything they could want online. Packaging Digest noted that shipment journey length has changed dramatically in multiple ways. For example, in the health care industry, medications might be in for a much longer journey than ever before, being shipped around the world; or they could be destined for a much shorter trip, being sent right to a consumer's doorstep in the same region in which the product is packaged.

In an industry like health care, product packaging includes much more than physical protection. The packaging must also be able to keep the items at the correct temperature and prevent contamination. The expanding online grocery space also faces concerns about environment control as well as physical protection.


Testing packaging for a new world

Manufacturers and retailers must address these challenges head-on. Ecommerce has made a focus on package protection increasingly more important, and not just in terms of keeping shipped good safe. Company reputations are also delicate and prone to damage if the delivery process is unsatisfactory. 

Ryan Germann, the ecommerce segment manager at Pregis, explained in a presentation at The Packaging Conference 2016 that consumer perception and loyalty is closely tied to successful deliveries. Nearly 60 percent of people who receive a damaged item in the mail are "somewhat unlikely" to buy from that retailer again; more than 15 percent said they were "extremely unlikely" to give that company their business again, Packaging World reported. To ensure your brand is on the road to success in an ecommerce world, it's crucial that you test your packaging.

"We want to know that the package testing levels we have in our protocols are appropriate, and not artificially too high or too low, which could result in over or under packaging," said Ed Church, ISTA's president, according to the source. "Having our tests be as accurate as possible is a major goal. This program will identify the level of confidence really needed. Right now, there's not enough data, particularly for international chains." More companies are beginning to enter the online retail space; and in doing so come across obstacles they've never had to work with before. As such, it's crucial that they identify their packaging weaknesses and know how to address them. Testing and revising packaging strategies is a key element in having a successful ecommerce business.